Wow. Where do I start? At the beginning, I suppose. It would be in the mid 1980's when I first read about the Tevis Cup 100 Mile One Day Ride. In a nutshell I saw a picture of RT Muffin on the cover of a horse magazine going over Cougar Rock in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Right then and there I knew I had to do this ride, that is was made for me and that ingrained Will to Endure ~ holdover training from my Estonia father Endel and all of our incredibly hard backpacking vacations that he took us on. I became a Tevis junkie that day.
Fast-forward to 2016 and I've accomplished my dream of riding and finishing Tevis. 2 times in fact and given the fact that year after year traditionally 50% will not finish, my beautiful homebred Arabian gelding Khemali'i and I were the other 50%. We got our iconic Cougar Rock photo and to this day I can still tear up about going over with my beautiful & willing horse.
About the time this photo was hand-delivered I developed a secret crush on the photographer, Bill Gore and unbeknownst to him or anyone else except God, he did not know my stalking behavior for 2 years. Again, fast forward to October 2016 and we were a 2 1/2 years a couple, Bill was getting voted onto the Tevis Board of Governors and I went to the meeting to support him. Somewhere towards the end, Kate Riodian, a long time board member gave her pitch for a Wendell Robie Cup, or trophy, which she has proposed to the board originally in 1968. It was voted down and this last pitch was her final one, as she was retiring. I heard sculpture or bronze and raised my hand to sculpt this piece for free if WSTF paid my expenses and foundry costs. At that point, I was slowly starting my "Tirzah Gaiting" clay piece for a bronze, which had been in my head for several years. I figured I would use the same foundry as my "Tirzah" bronze.
I was thanked by Kate for offering and I never head anything about the piece again. For months. I had totally forgotten about it until Bill went to another BOG meeting the 3rd week of April 2017 and texted me while he was there asking if I was ready to do the sculpture. I said sure, but had no idea what I offered. When he came home he showed me the iconic photo of Wendell & his horse and said that was the image they wanted. And THEN, I was a little concerned that they wanted it for this year's Tevis Awards Banquet. It would have been so much nicer to start it in October the previous year. But I love working under pressure.
Over the next week there was a lot of mental preparation. This also included not sleeping at night because my brain was working overtime on what exactly I was going to do. I spoke with Ronnie Frostad, the same foundry (Frostad Atelier in Sacramento), who was doing my "Tirzah Gaiting" bronze and discussed the commission. I wasn't even sure she could get it done with the short time frame. We talked at length and she praised me for thinking about my future in art, ie, doing this thing for free. I saw no other way because it was an opportunity of a lifetime and frankly I was shocked as heck that they even gave me this opportunity. I'm pretty sure most people (though a few, thank you Crysta Turnage ❤) didn't know my art and figured I just shot endurance rides with Bill then drank beer in ridecamp.....
Ronnie told me the foundry could do this piece but she needed 2 months to get it done which she outlined in all the steps. I had to get it to her on June 1st and no later. So I gave her my deadline of July 31st for the completed bronze and no later. We were on. Like endurance horses!
Jeff Herten, Tevis Cup Committee member and Tevis Extraordinaire (& with wife Debbie Lyon recipients of the Dru Barner Award this year~ the list is sooo extensive how they have contributed) was my go-to guy for the project. I also did not know, 'til recently, that he and Debbie financed the bronze and soon will own the #2 Edition. Jeff and I emailed each other back and forth about how big it should be, full-figure, bas-relief, or a bust. Any or all would work, but in talking with Ronnie, she suggested a bust or full figure would draw more attention than a bas-relief. She also felt I had the skills to do a incredible job, and other than my mother who left this world in 1982, Ronnie has been my greatest cheerleader in this process. She is a very talented artist also, so to have her support has been key. I was tackling a project bigger than anything I had done to date and a LOT of people were going to see it. My excitement level was Ginormous.
Back to this pre-work ~ the guy HAD to look like Wendell. He couldn't look like anyone else. I heard that from Jeff, Terryl Reed & Kathie Perry, to name a few. Wendell is pretty famous in our town of Auburn and is the reason I got to go over Cougar Rock and have it be one of the most glorious moments of my life. And because of the ride, Gordy Ainsleigh ran the Tevis on foot in 1974 and now we have the Western States 100 Mile Run. Auburn ~ Endurance Capital of the World. The history is huge and some of us, the ride & run is our reason for breathing. So, in a nutshell this guy had to look like Wendell.
I wasn't too worried about getting Wendell right, as long as I had good photographs. Rene Baylor, Bill's long-time photography partner had a group of photos of Wendell, his granddaughter Marion and loads of horse photos on a disk that Bill brought home one day. That was a Godsend, because who would know I needed those? So much I could use!
On May 1st I bought all of my supplies, a new lighted magnifying lamp and started on the bas-relief medallion.
On May 2nd, I went to the Tevis office and spent time with Terryl, Kathie Perry & Roger Yohe grabbing any pertinent photos. We talked at length about Wendell, the type of man he was, and his saddle. The saddle was a mystery. I left an hour later and was off to make my armature.
The armature took about 6 hours to build. It wasn't perfect but it was sturdy. I learned from the "Tirzah Gaiting" armature to spend the time to do it right. When I was working on her, I was too lazy to drive 4 miles to Home Depot to get a good wood base but grabbed something out of the yard that had been sitting in the rain for months. It was bowed one way, and as it dried while I was working on it, it bowed the other way. Between that and the dog armature and how I attached it, the whole piece was not pretty and gave me a lot of grief. Tirzah's gaiting feet kept touching and I didn't want that. I fought with the piece whole time, and taught me about how important is a foundation. Just like a house. With drawing, you can fake certain things but not with sculpture. IMO. Since even Wendell, I've gotten more of a clue on how to do an armature, so hopefully my next piece will be even better.
The stress level for me was highest, I think, before I got the armature done. Once that was complete and I started slapping on clay, life was good. There is a wonderful feeling to be able to take the Plastincine clay (oil-based) and make it do what you want. During this time I also was still researching, which continued til virtually the last day. Every time I turned my Lazy Susan a 1/8 turn, there was a side that I had to figure out. Google Images was my friend and Bill with his ride photo printer was my other friend. Everything I worked on, I wanted to make sure it was accurate. I learned in my early classes in Art Center that if you're going to illustrate something you better know what you're doing because there is someone out who will question the authenticity of the art. Granted, there is "Artistic License", but this is not one of the pieces I wanted to experiment with. Wendell was a real person, and his friends are still alive! And Tevis still Goeth!!! !
Wendell was worked on separately for close to 1 1/2 weeks. I spent a lot of time on his head & face, and eventually his upper body (done "without" clothes, so I wasn't just slapping on a shirt that looked like a body would be under it. With his hat, I made the mistake of doing the brim without an armature and that was a waste of time. It wouldn't stand up by itself.
I kept the arms and legs free-swinging in the wire because I wasn't sure exactly where I needed to secure them. And, where was the right hand going? In the photo it's not visible so I had to think about where it would look natural. I also had a height requirement, per my agreement with Ronnie and the cost, so I wasn't about to go over. It was a maximum of 14" high and my piece came in at 13 3/4". I was happy about that because I apparently made my armature correct and didn't have to smoosh it done to fit haha! That would have been sooo wrong!
I was working on this 9-13 hours a day. Weirdly I love my sleep, but I would jump out of bed at 5 am and work til late in the evening. My girlfriend Dina asked me if I was exhausted and I said "Not at all". In fact I was not looking forward to the sculpture being completed. I also was not going to be late so that drove me. Working under pressure has always thrilled me and the drive to create something new was exhilarating. AND, my thankfulness meter has been at an all-time high since being asked to do such an important sculpture.
My scariest evening was making the decision to finally attach Wendell's armature to the horse. It was probably close to midnight and Bill was asleep. I had trouble getting Wendell's armature to set up on the horse without falling over so I had to put in more stakes to hold him up. I needed more than 2 hands and wasn't about to wake up Bill so I attached a guy wire (if that's what it's called) to my tea pot and things were good until I moved the whole sculpture and base to work on my additional stake, forgetting about the tea pot. Wendell went flying off his horse and the whole sculpture and base almost took a dive off of my kitchen island. It was one scary moment and as soon as Wendell was back on his horse I went to bed.
Once Wendell was on the horse, I could start figuring out where his legs and arms needed to be and also how the canteen would be positioned. It all had to work. After those things were determined I could secure appendages and not be so worried about parts of the sculpture wiggling. The lower legs were still a mystery, though I did have a sketch I had done, but some of that detail evolved as the piece went on.
The Wendell's Right Hand Story. I had molded it and put it in the freezer for a while, then the fridge. A day went by and I pulled it out and worked on it for a bit, then put it under the sculpture. A day later I went to attach the hand onto the arm wire. I could not find it anywhere. I looked in the fridge and freezer 12 times thinking someone smooshed the hand with the milk carton. I finally realized I grabbed it earlier to make part of the saddlebag. Another dumb ass move but clay sometimes just looks like a lump of clay so it got sculpted again.
I thought long and hard about the bucking rolls Wendell had on his saddle. With all the research I did and his Tevis friends I consulted, I could not get a definitive answer on this detail. I had a hard enough time trying to find out what kind of saddle he rode in, which I hopefully determined was a "Officers" McClellan saddle. But the bucking rolls were just a mystery. I was going to leave them off, but so many of the photos of him & his saddle showed them, so on they went. It would have been very cool to see his actual saddle. So many stories that could tell.
It was about this point that I started really refining the piece. I was feeling more relaxed about taking my time and maybe taking a shower....sleeping a little.....stuff like that. (Bill & I had wedding to shoot one weekend and another wedding to attend in So. Ca. where I came home and barfed for 2 days so it was good to not be stressed about Wendell). The whole process in creating something like this is wonderful and all the different steps have their own reward. It was fun to photograph it also and send photos to a few key people (Terryl Reed & Jeff Herten got the whole pictorial). At some point Bill told me Kate Riodian had texted him and was just beside herself ecstatic at my piece. She was very funny in that she had no clue if I could do this and even told me she was a little worried. I think her words of "Everyone thinks they're an artist" in The Tevis Forum sums up her suspicion of my ability. Of course I didn't know that initially but to get her approval for the realization of her dream was sweet.
The headstall, bit, reins and all the hardware was something that occupied my mind. I wasn't sure how I was going to do it. I ended up making Sculpey pieces for the bit so they were rigid. The reins were another issue and while I ended up taking yarn and smooshing clay in the 2 lengths, the foundry had to take them off and they'll fabricate them later as the piece nears completion. This is my novice sculpting coming out but I don't think I could have done it any more "watered down". Every piece is important to the whole sculpture and I trust the foundry will do a great job.
I will do another blog post to highlight the work at the foundry. It is extensive and more involved than I originally had a clue. With each edition, after the original mold, the process is repeated, hence the high costs of bronzes. Fascinating work!